Littoralist Art Practice and Communicative Action(1)
Since the turn to autonomy, art has striven mightily to mirror one basic aesthetic experience, the increasing decentration of subjectivity. It occurs as the subject leaves the spatio-temporal structures of everyday life behind, freeing itself from the conventions of everyday perception, of purposive behaviours, and of the imperatives of work and utility. (Habermas,1990:17)
The theme of the gift, of freedom and obligation in the gift, of generosity and self-interest in giving, reappear in our own society like the resurrection of a dominant motif long forgotten. (Mauss,1924,1967:66)
Within the politically progressive arts of the postmodern era, strategies of taking, quoting, appropriating, have usually assumed greater currency than those of giving, donating and providing. Within the past few years(2) however, the practice of giving seems to have become more readily appreciated as a modus operandi for producing ethical, socially responsive and politically efficacious art. In this essay I will argue that as a specific form of littoral art practice(3) - the art of giving, and its associated `modalities'- conform in many ways to what the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas could acknowledge as forms of communicative action, aimed at the progressive de-colonisation of the life world, and even perhaps, the inauguration of what Habermas idealised as "the good and the true life."
In the first section of this essay, I will discuss several examples of littoralist art practice that have occurred within several international contexts, including Halifax, during the past three years.(4) I will interpolate the discussion with some points on the conditions of giving and the relationships between this form of cultural work, social commitment, engaged art practice and tendency, or tendenzkunst, the implicit ground for the critical negotiation of this kind of art as normative, and not therefore, radical political practice. These are terms with an extensive intellectual legacy that have challenged many artists, philosophers, art theorists and critics, beginning with Marx and Engel's famous critiques in The Holy Family (1845, of Ferdinand de Lasalle's historical drama Franz von Sickingen (1859) and Eugene Sue's The Mysteries of Paris.(5)Acknowledging the political problematics of some of these art works, I will attempt to establish a claim for considering them as practical examples of Habermas' theory of communicative action, in action. I hope that this brief discussion of littoralist art practice and its theoretical implications will contribute to the various inter-related topics of the Habermas Seminar and the Khyber Lecture series: criticism, the public sphere, communicative action, the decolonisation of the life world, education, postmodernity, reason, morality, ethics and democracy.
From his earliest essays of the 1960's and early 1970's, Jurgen Habermas' views on the role of art in the transformation of society have remained somewhat opaque, yet not, I will argue, underdeveloped. He affirmed that art, along with philosophy, law, politics and economics, is an important terrain for mediation, communicative rationality and pragmatic action, yet he is somewhat ambivalent about the extent to which this can occur in an institution which the forces of an increasingly technocratic and bureaucratic modernity have rendered into increasing autonomy from the life world. As a Kantian, he has remained somewhat resolute in his defence of the separation of pure and practical reason from aesthetic judgement.
In modern societies, the spheres of science, morality, and law have crystalized around these forms of argumentation (instrumental reason). The corresponding cultural systems of action administer problem solving capacities in a way similar to that in which the enterprises of art and literature administer capacities for world disclosure. (Habermas,1987:207)
It is clear from this statement, which he employed in his extended critique of Derrida's purported collapsing of the genre distinction between literature and philosophy, that while Habermas views art and culture generally as an important locus for theoretical attention, he maintains a boundary between the forms of communicative action which can operate within the spheres of political, legal or philosophical discourse, and those that can occur within the fields of art and literature. For Habermas art remains at the level of representation, distanced from the material reality and "spatio-temporal structures" of the life world, and as such, can not be considered as ideal a site as is language - or rather speech - for the deployment of communicative action.
I believe that the origins of Habermas's somewhat ambivalent position on the function of art in the transformation of society can be found in his essay "Consciousness-Raising or Redemptive criticism - the Contemporaneity of Walter Benjamin", which appeared before the publication in 1973 of his famous Legitimation Crisis (Legitimationsprobleme im Spatkapitalismus). In this essay, Habermas counterposes the differing aesthetic positions of Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin, two of his intellectual mentors, in what he suggested, somewhat later, was an attempt to revise the theoretical assumptions within critical theory; an attempt to link a contemporary theory of communication based upon a Gadamerian hermeneutic philosophy with historical materialism, and this, in order to provide a truly comprehensive theory of society and the process(es) of societal evolution. In his Benjamin essay, published in German in 1972, and subsequently in English as a contribution to a special New German Critique issue on Benjamin (No 17: Spring 1979), he traces and contrasts the theoretical positions of these two important members(6) of the Franfurt School, brilliantly articulating the differences between Marcuse's activist and Benjamin's redemptive criticism. In Benjamin he finds (or projects) an endorsement of his own mistrust of conventional Marxist political categories and processes - class, class struggle, the labour theory of value, and the function of revolution in order to achieve social change - and an early affirmation of the possibilities of commmunicative action grounded in critical reason. But with the historical knowledge of the Second World War and the Holocaust, which was denied to Benjamin, Habermas is forced to contemplate the limitations of trust in mutual understanding and consensus formation between individuals, social groups and nation states.
A theory of linguistic communication that wants to reclaim Benjamin's insights for a materialist theory of social evolution would have to consider together two Benjaminian propositions. I am thinking of the assertion: "that there is a sphere of human agreement that is non-violent to the extent that it is wholly inaccesssible to violence: the true sphere of `mutual understanding',language. (R:289) And I am thinking of the warning that belongs here: "Pessimism all along the line. Absolutely.... but above all mistrust, mistrust and again mistrust in all mutual understanding reached between classes, nations, individuals. And unlimited trust only in I.G. Farben and the peaceful perfection of the Luftwaffe" (R., 191). (Habermas: 1972:59)(7)
Taking from one of his key intellectual mentors these somewhat contradictory cues, and others less contradictory, from Adorno -"after Auschwitz, poetry is impossible" - Habermas recognised, at this early stage in the development of his communication theory, the inherent problematic of a communicative action that did not offer the possibility of its own (dialectical) transformation. And though his Frankfurt School inspired system/lifeworld paradigm could adequately describe the instrumental logic behind the progressive development of administrative bureaucratisation and the economic forces driving the conflict(s) between the system and the lifeworld(8), communicative actions, wrongly used, could have, as Benjamin himself understood, wholly undesirable consequences.
With Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse, Habermas does see an important place for art as a critical mediating agent in the decolonising process; however, how art could, or should mediate is less clear. If Science, philosophy and art are thoroughly institutionalised and subjected to increasing ideological incursion by the legitimating practices of the state, how can any one `sphere' become the privileged site for communicative action? The issue now, he writes in 1983 "is how to overcome the isolation of science, morals and art and their respective expert cultures" (1983,90:19), and return them to the pubic sphere. By the early 1980's it seemed as if Habermas is beginning to heed Marx's injunction in his 11th thesis on Feuerbach - that it was not up to philsophers "to simply interpret the world - the point is to change it." By this time Habermas had fully articulated the restrictions wrought upon life world activities by the hegemony of expert cultures and their rarefied exclusive esoteric languages. However his own work as a philosopher still remained somewhat distanced from that very life world which he so wished to protect.
I agree, somewhat, with Terry Eagleton's opinion, that as an academic Habermas is "aloofly remote from the sphere of political action" but that his work as an intellectual represents a "political strike for the life-world against administrative rationality." Eagleton also generously admits that:
...art itself is for Habermas one crucial place where the jeopardized resources of moral and affective life may be crystalized; and in the critical discussion of such art, a kind of shadowy public sphere may be re-established, and so mediating between the separate Kantian spheres of the cognitive, moral and aesthetic. (Eagleton, 1990:4020.
This essay represents an attempt to match Habermas's theory of communicative action with some "crystalized" examples of littoralist art practice.
My first example of littoralist art practice as communicative action, is presented in the collaborative work of an Austrian based group of artists, whose activities to date have been identified by titles that simply represent the length of time they spend working on each project, for example, 6, 8 or 11 Wochen Klausure (6, 8 or 11 Weeks of Enclosure). Encouraged in the summer of 1993 by project co-ordinator Austrian art critic Wolfgang Zinggl, a group of eight artists(9) used the existing social infra-structure of the Wiener Secession, a famous exhibition hall for contemporary art in Vienna, "to work on the problem of homelessness."(10) Through a series of informal discussions with individuals and various groups, including homeless people, representatives from government and social agencies, they discovered that a major problem for the Viennese homeless was that they did not have access to medical care, the result of not being officially registered for health insurance. Over the course of several days of round table discussions, the artists decided to raise funds to purchase a bus that was remodeled into a multi-purpose ambulance. The group also lobbied the local government to provide a physician to work with the bus and subsequently the overall management of the ambulance was taken over by the Caritas organisation. Since its inception the medical health service has provided medical aid for more than 500 homeless people a month, people who previously had no access whatsoever to health care. The group also discovered from their discussions with the homeless that they had no place to store or protect their personal belongings. As a response the group of artists arranged for some 200 lockers to be provided at various shelters throughout the city. Through ongoing dialogue with various government and social agencies the 11 Wochen Klausur group also developed a communication system which would prevent unfair evictions of tenants from their rental accommodations. They have since established a pilot system for two Viennese districts.
In Switzerland eight months later, at the Zurich Shedhalle, an exhibition gallery for contemporary art, the group, with a few new members, tackled a another social topic - the city's drug problem, reputed to be one of the worst in Europe, and a source of growing embarrassment for the Swiss government. After several months of intense research into the issues they realised that the problem was exacerbated by what they called "the highly superficial, meaningless and politically overburdened discussion of the issue."(11) Their response was to arrange daily "boat talks" which took place over several hours on Zurich Lake. Small groups of four specialists each representing the spheres of business, politics, human rights organisations, medicine social work, including some of the drug addicts themselves, met over the course of eight weeks (8 Wochen Klausur). Each of the groups discussed various aspects of the drug problem. Away from their various institutional and administrative contexts, minute takers, file systems, and in a genial context with coffee, fresh air and a view, the groups were able to have relatively open discussions about the drug problem and how best to respond to it. According to members of the 8 Wochen Klausur group, the atmosphere on the boat trips encouraged the `specialists' to articulate positions that would have been difficult or impossible to communicate within their highly administered institutional environments. In this new context they could minimise, or erase the conflicts which had developed between their various institutions and expert communities, and challenge prevailing attitudes, bothin a reasonable and ethically responsible manner. Over the course of several weeks some sixty representatives from various political and business constituencies met, including the chairmen of all the Swiss political parties, two senior prosecutors, police superintendents from several Swiss regions, members of privately and publicly funded relief organisations, business, church groups, social volunteers, and the chief editors of the Swiss print media.
The discussions on the boat lead to the formation of an enhanced needle exchange initiative, and resulted in a lessening of spectacular news coverage and the "othering" of drug addicts which typically takes place in the media on a regular basis. The discussions also resulted in a plan to institute a boarding house for drug addicted prostitutes and other long term initiatives. In a short time the artists' group realised the raising of 100.000 for the boarding house, but when they attempted to integrate it into a neighbourhood, a demonstration lead to a withdrawal of the plan. According to Katharina Lenz, one of the members of the group, the next round of discussions will involve more inviduals from the projected neighbourhood site for the boarding house.
A third project in Italy involved a small village 90 km north of Rome. After consulting the local newspapers from the previous ten years, consulting with municipal authorities and different groups of village inhabitants, one third of whom were over 65, they decided to focus upon the development of a recreational facility for seniors. Using a novel method of fund raising the group provided a centre with some basic equipment, bar with refrigeration, dishwasher, etc. They started a photographic event which had people pay a nominal fee to be photographed in front of a large painting of the town. Through this action the local population indirectly financed the bar. In addition the group arranged for the recuperation of a "centrally located but incorrectly constructed and therefore abandoned boccia field." The recuperation of this important facet of rural Italian social life was obtained through the development of a contract with a large scale wine producer, the initiation of export connections and sales within Austria which netted a small net profit that was then channeled into the reconstruction of the boccia court.
How do these `art' actions conform to Habermas' theory of communicative action? Habermas distinguishes between strategic, instrumental and communicative actions. The distinction he says between actions that are oriented toward success and those toward understanding is crucial.
I speak of communicative actions when social interactions are co-ordinated not through the egocentric calculations of success of every individual but through co-operative achievements of understanding among participants. (Habermas in Thompson and Held 1982:264)
and elsewhere he writes,
Whereas in strategic action one actor seeks to influence the behaviour of another by means of the threat of sanctions or the prospect of gratification in order to cause the interaction to continue as the first actor desires, in communicative action one actor seeks rationally to motivate another by relying on the illocutionary binding/bonding effect (Bindungseffekt
) of the offer contained in the speech act (Habermas, 1990:58)
In this and other collaborative projects undertaken by the Austrian group Habermas's pre-requisites for communicative action, as opposed to strategic action, were respected. For instance at the outset in this and other projects, no agendas or goals were established, neither were outcomes predicted by any members of the group, including the group facilitator, Wolfgang Zinggl. Rather, the group employed a method of on-going dialogue with provisional consensus taking at appropriate points in the process, in order to exercise a modicum of control over the resulting plans and initiatives.(12) No one individual assumed control of the process; rather i was, in the best sense possible, participatory and democratic.
Co-operations, the International Program of Art & The Environment based in Luxembourg has had some extraordinary success in developing new modes of communication between expert communities. Their programme encourages the development of multifaceted interdisciplinary projects in which artists, social workers, psychologists, landscape architects and members of marginal groups - the mentally and physically challenged - have co-operated to create new ways of responding to the environment. "The interaction with marginal groups, and their integration in such projects has led to extraordinary results in which artistic, social and environmental `objectives' overlap"(Brochure 1995). One of Cooperations most successful projects has been the redesign and building of an extraordinary garden in Wiltz.
Similarly, the Argentinian artist group Ala Plastica, an NGO (non-government organisation) established in 1991, has promoted various environmental projects, recycling programs and educational initiatives. These include the recuperation of degraded spaces in La Plata Zoo and the transformation of these into public spaces for the environmental education of school children. Since their founding, Ala Plastica have used collaborative methods to develop proposals for improving the life quality of municipal provincial and "cultural organisms", education, and urban waste management. Members of the group are represented on the Environmental Advisory Council of Buenos Aires State and La Plata City hall. They have also established co-operative agreements on environmental education with La Plata National University.
Over a decade ago Peter Dunn and Lorraine Leeson formed the Art of Change group in London as a visual arts and design organisation concerned with issues of relating to the transformation of the urban environment. They have spent the last decade working with communities in London's east end. West meets East was realised as a collaboration with a class of Bengali girls in an east London school. Working with the girls, the artists explored themes relating cultural difference in a large photo textile mural containing both English and Bengali text and images.
Art Link, formed in 1992 and based in Donegal, Ireland, works collaboratively on public art projects of various kinds aimed at stimulating dialogue and participation within the community. They have worked with the Buncrana Environmental group (BEG) and the Donegal Clean Waters Association on issues relating to environmental education, air and water conservation. An English group, Platform founded in 1983 has been working on year long community projects involving performances in peoples' private homes. They construct forums for the discussion of radical social ideas such as their recent quest to find and reopen some of London's historic 18th century waterways, now obliterated by roads and buildings. They maintain links with labour groups and various organisations such as Greenpeace, Common Ground and the Free International University.
The Hirsch Farm Project is probably the purist example of communicative action in action. Based in a rural context in Northbrook Illinois, the HFP is described as "an arts based think tank concerned with public art, the environment and community" that brings together individuals from a wide range of disciplines to meet in camera for a period of a week to discuss specific topics and sub-topics. Their project titled "Non-spectacle and the Limitations of Popular Opinion" expanded upon results obtained from a 1991 (MUD) and 1992 Pressure on the Public programmes which examined "the dynamics of how artists and other professionals communicate with a specified audience or community, and how these intentions are received"(13) Each participant in HFP `focus groups' develops a proposal or essay that reflects or responds to the conversations generated during the week long discussion sessions, and this results in a publication that is distributed to individuals and organisations in the arts, sciences and humanities. According to Laurie Winter, a co-ordinator the goals of HFP are to "stimulate dialogue and elevate the standards of conversation between different communities and disciplines whose paths would normally not cross."
Other littoral artists and artists groups include Fine Rats International, Dogs of Heaven, Cultural Transmissions Network, Prgetto Cuspide (Venice), Locus+ (Newcastle), Ocean Earth (NYC), protoplast (Basel), Projects environment (Lancashire), Synapse, Sydney Australia, Whaur extremes meet (Scotland), Suzanne lacy, Group Material, Conrad Atkinson, Karl Beveridge and Carole Conde, Helen and Newton Harrison. These are just a few of the many groups and individuals outside of Halifax who are producing what can be called littoralist art.
The next examples of littoralist art are from Halifax, the first an exhibition entitled, appropriately enough for these economically depressed times, Food Bank. This exhibition by Nova Scotia artist, Kelly Lycan, was installed during the first two weeks of December 1994, at the newly founded artist run Khyber Arts Centre in Halifax. As the title suggests Food Bank was "an exhibition with the function of gathering and offering food." Several weeks before the exhibit a notice was sent out to members of the Halifax community with instructions on how to participate in the exhibition together with a number of blank card tags. Participants were requested to write a favourite recipe or two on the cards and to describe their occupation in the space provided. The artist offered to pick up the recipe tags and participants' donations for the Metro Halifax Food Bank. The food donations and recipes could also be deposited by December 1st in a drop box in the vestibule of Kelly Lycan's apartment building on Morris Street. The announcement card stated that the recipes would be placed on the gallery wall for others to see and exchange. People were invited to bring food to the exhibition and to choose a recipe from the rear wall display to take home with them. Lycan's intention was to initiate what she called "a circular gift." People who took the recipes could cook them for friends, thus passing on what the artist referred to as "the gift of food." At the gallery the packaged food items were arranged in a square on the floor, bounded by an elegant gold line. On the wall adjacent, the recipe cards were hung on hooks, and on the other adjoining wall, a service line control ticket tape machine, such as those found in super markets or government agencies, provided numbers for the participants. A notice informed the participants that the number which they received from the ticket tape machine corresponded with a recipe card which they could take home. At the conclusion of the exhibit the collected food was delivered to the Metro Food Bank and distributed to its users.
Lycan's Food Bank engages a number of critical issues relating to the value of art, productive labour, the politics of reciprocity and what we can term the political economy of giving.(14) Many of the participants identified humbly with the actual needs of food bank users by providing cheap and easy to produce recipes. The reciprocal and participatory form of the work which obliged gallery goers to give food and take a ticket in order to collect a recipe, encouraged the donors' identification of themselves as potential food bank users. They were not encouraged to choose any recipe which they desired. Instead, they were required to donate food and then take a ticket and line up as they would for the food bank itself. Some donors recognised that their privileged status as food donor rather than food bank recipient (or `client' as some bureaucratic agencies emphemistically call them) was transitory, thus reinforcing sociological studies which reveal that the majority of givers are often barely able to make ends meet, and occasionally have been aid recipients themselves. Many donors took the opportunity to produce their best recipe for exhibition which they decorated artfully on the card. Others presented their favourite creative alterations of famous staple/comfort foods for the impoverished such as macaroni dinner and tomato soup. Many realised upon entering the exhibit, that they had engaged in a collaborative process, in which they too became exhibitors, where donors became recipients and where exhibition value was transformed conveniently into use value. Discussions about the meaning and value of the work took place informally both inside and outside of the gallery context throughout the two week exhibit.
The end result of Lycan's exhibition was not simply the donation of food to the local food bank, although, this to be sure was one important aim, but also the critical engagement of the Food Bank participants into various aspects of the labour process, including the acknowledgment of the important ideological relationships between social class (here indicated by occupation), and cultural consumption. Food Bank encouraged the negotiation of the conditions of the purchase of food items, of cooking, creating recipes, exchanging and consuming food as forms of "cultural capital" (Bourdieu, 1977, 1984). Lycan's project questioned the terms of market value, exchange versus giving, altruism and giving as a necessary and obligatory component of receiving. Her exhibition reinforced the reciprocal nature of giving and the critique of capitalism so eloquently expressed in French sociologist Marcel Mauss' seminal study The Gift (1924),that since its publication, has become the foundation for many subsequent studies on the socio-cultural characteristics of giving by Mauss's followers and critics, among them Claude Levi Strauss and more recently, Pierre Bourdieu. Forty years before the introduction of the computer and the inauguration of the so-called "information age", and now, the putative, "age without work", Mauss wrote:
It is only our Western societies that quite recently turned man into an economic animal. But we are not yet all animals of the same species. In both lower and upper classes pure irrational expenditure is in current practice. Homo oeconomicus
is not behind us, but before (us), like the moral man, the man of duty, the scientific man and the reasonable man. For a long time man was something quite different; and it is not so long now since he became a machine - a calculating machine.(Mauss, 1924:74)
With the exception of the negative gloss on reason, these are probably sentiments with which Habermas himself could identify.
In her discussion of Food Bank Lycan refers to Mauss and one of his more recent disciples, Lewis Hyde, whose book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, she acknowledges, has provided some of the key theoretical underpinnings of her work, such as her negotiation of the complex relationships between the gift and capital. She agrees with Mauss and Hyde that the "gift should move" and moreover - an important point- that givers should not capitalise upon their giving. Hyde interprets the `spirit' of gift exchange as an "erotic commerce" (xiv). In this he acknowledges the influence of anthropologist Marshall Sahlin's Stone Age Economics (1972), a rereading and insertion of Mauss's interpretation of the potlatch, prestation, and various other forms of reciprocal giving and exchange into the context of a political philsophy, liberal humanism. Hyde argues that various models of creative giving, and the gift itself, are not only a means toward critically renegotiating property and capital, but also of formally renouncing the profit motive, acquisitiveness and selfishness as the primary motors of social life within capitalist society. Yet, he acknowledges also the implicit refutation of his humanism, and suggests as a possible antidote to his positive pronouncements on the social panacea of giving, the somewhat more pessimistic essays by Garrett Hardin (1968) and Millard Schumaker (1980), who discuss the limits of altruism and the problem of giving, obligation and reciprocity in an increasingly secular, individualistic, administered and technological society.
Lycan's work does not employ democratic discussion as a key element in her project as in the Austrian work and that of others discussed above.I would argue however, that it also conforms to Habermas' prescription for communicative action by privileging the use of critical reason and the bonding/binding of participants throughout.
The next examples initiate a similar critical negotiation of the political economy of giving, the socio-cultural significance and politics of food distribution, and, implicity, international aid. The Empty Bowls project initiated by ceramists Lisa Blackburn and John Hartom of Franklin, Michigan, began in 1990 with a simple idea; ceramic artists, teachers, students and others would make some bowls, then invite some friends for a meal of soup and bread (or rice or ice cream), convivial discussion and possibly music. In exchange for the bowl and the meal, the guest was asked (but not expected) to donate $10.00 or more to a hunger organisation chosen by the sponsors of the meal. Their promotional material provides details on three primary objectives for the Empty Bowlsproject; the first, "to raise as much money as possible to feed hungry people in the U.S. and abroad"; second, to engage people in hunger awareness and education, and third, art education. "The language of art", they suggest in a romantic passage, "circumvents the boundaries of all other languages to touch our souls. We feel through creativity we can create positive social change." (Blackburn and Hartom 1990:2)
According to their literature, the original Empty Bowl project was timed to coincide with International Food Day, October 16th 1991, an annual event based upon the founding on that date in 1945 of FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Blackburn and Hartom encouraged what they called "a high level of integrity for the project." In order to achieve this ideal, they wrote, Empty Bowls is a project of inclusion, cutting across social, political, racial, religious, age and any other perceived boundaries to join us all in working towards a common goal"(1990:2). Since their project was initiated many groups throughout the U.S. and further afield (as far away as New Zealand), have used this model to successfully plan and undertake fund raisers and education programmes for local food banks and non-governmental world hunger relief organisations.
Using the successful model established by Hartom and Blackburn, a group in Halifax last year established their own Empty Bowlinitiative, renaming it the Hungry Bowls Project. Members of a Ceramics tableware class at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design lead by instructor Walter Ostrom of NSCAD negotiated with several restaurants in the Halifax metropolitan area to donate tureens of soup to the NSCAD Cafeteria venue. Participants purchased tickets for $12.00 each and two days before the event they were sold out. A ticket provided the bearer with a bowl of gourmet soup and several helpings of bread. In addition they could take home the hand crafted bowl which had been created for this purpose by students and faculty of the Ceramics Department. The event raised over $2400 for the local Metro Food Bank and garnered much media attention. The organisers structured a similar event this year and plan to make this an annual event.
Hungry Bowls is more of a do good, feel good project than the Lycan example discussed earlier, and it is certainly no frontal assault on the socially constructed and reproduced inequities within capitalist society. And yet its aim is similar, extending the language of the altruistic gift into a more politically efficacious education - communicative action - programme of the type endorsed by Blackburn and Hartom. Only upscale restaurants, where a bowl of soup would typically cost in the $5.00-$10.00 range, were requested to donate. The event was promoted in the press and on air as a focus for Food Bank donations from the general public and at the conclusion of the event, money rather than food was sent to the Food Bank, thus assisting it to reinforce its bulk purchasing capacity.
The next example is an international relief aid project developed by NSCAD Design Communications professor Michael LeBlanc, graduate student Sara-Marie Loupe, and TUNS (Technical University of Nova Scotia) Professor Michael Smedley. Last year the three developed a proposal to use digital photography to construct a computer database to reunite refugee families in Bosnia and Rwanda, both countries devastated by their recent and continuing conflicts, resulting in Rwanda, in the murder of hundreds of thousands, principally members of the Tutsi minority and Hutu intelligentia.
Titled loosely the Refugee Family Relocation Project, it began with Sara-Marie Loupe's concern for the plight of approximately 100,000 Rwandan refugee children separated from their families. After some preliminary work the Halifax group began collaborating on line with individuals at the California State Polytech at Pomona and a few NGO's in the U.S. Loupe pioneered the concept to develop a database which can be used in the field by those working directly with refugee populations. With the assistance of LeBlanc she developed the interface and graphics while Smedley used the designs for implementation on a Macintosh Powerbook. Sara-Marie Loupe was subsequently invited to Washington D.C. to meet with Joseph Mutabuba, the Rwandan Ambassador to the U.S., and was offered the opportunity to show the team's demonstration models to non-government aid agencies. Mutabuba reportedly said "If I had a database sitting on my desk right now, I could be getting families back together...I have people calling me every day looking for their families."(15) A Salt Lake City organisation dedicated to tracking unaccompanied children recently gave the group a grant to continue their research. The project organisers expect the system to be fully operational within one year. Given the continuing strife and dislocation of people in Rwanda this could not be too soon. Sara-Marie Loupe recently took her database model to Rwanda to undertake some field tests.
The next example is titled simply Giving part of an end of year Intermedia Area exhibition (Intermedia General (December 13-17, 1994),that final year BFA students arranged for NSCAD's Anna Leonowens Gallery. Gallery window posters and other promotion tools informed gallery visitors that during the duration of the exhibition and at certain times of the day, they could take advantage of the following free services: bicycle repairs, button sewing, telephone calls, letter writing, kids' crafts, hair cuts, "Alice's thoughts", and a reading. During the week of the exhibit many individuals took advantage of the free services, particularly the haircuts and bicycle repairs. The hair cutting service provided by Leah Miller, a graduating student specialising in tattoo art, was a major hit among the many cash strapped students who attended the exhibition. Upon graduating with her BFA in December 1994 Miller returned to her home town with the intention of continuing her artwork, and making a regular income at the same time, by starting a professional tattooing practice from a room in her parents' home. Toward the conclusion of the Giving exhibit, Andrew Mclaren, a professional cycle smith, a local competitive cyclist as well as a full-time art student, repaired Leah's bicycle in exchange for a haircut. Similar deals were struck throughout the week with non `exhibitors', thus mirroring in some senses the informal student economy as well as the extensive labour and services exchange (bartering)that characterise the informal economy in Cape Breton, one of the poorest regions within the province of Nova Scotia, with one of the highest unemployment rates (up to 50% in some areas), in Canada. While it is not unusual for students to exchange services as part of their "common culture" (Willis, 1992) it is somewhat unusual for them to provide services freely to anyone in a public gallery context as a performed art. This exhibition circumscribed the process of giving as an informal service economy - one that can benefit both giver and recipient - raising for discussion the socio-political issues of altruism, reciprocity and exchange. This exhibition demonstrated world disclosure at its best.
The final example, by young Halifax based artist Stephen Ellwood, bypassed the obligation, reciprocity problem altogether to give money directly to the needy. As part of an OO Gallery sponsored project, Ellwood sought and received donations from various individuals and sponsor groups and exchanged this money into nickels, some $300.00 worth. At an appointed time he then threw these into an awaiting crowd from the top of a building on Barrington Street, one of the main thoroughfares of downtown Halifax. This work encouraged much media attention and Ellwood even received criticism from a Reform Member of Parliament who feared that government (taxpayers') money, used to subsidise OO Gallery and other artist run centres, was being used irresponsibly.
Each of these examples encourage critical reflection upon the nature of community, the market economy, the underground or informal economy, the commodity status of the work of art, giving, obligation and reciprocity. The final example, Ellwood's action(16), could be described in conventional avant-garde terms as a blague,or more charitably perhaps as a type of a Scrooge action with its object the public renouncing or expiation of miserly guilt. Ellwood could also be the exemplary Robin Hood who extracts alms from the rich to distribute to the poor. Like Lycan's example, this work tests the meaning of altruism and questions the limits of giving (and taking) within late capitalist economy.
There are many theoretical implications for an engaged or committed cultural practice in each of these `artworks'. It is strange to even nominate them as art works when each engages some form of performed, participatory /communicative activity and there are no final objects - commodities -save the documentation of the event, to place in a permanent gallery context. In most of the examples and on one of more levels, labour is freely given and no compensation is expected or anticipated, except perhaps, for the cynic, art world cultural capital from essays such as this. It could be argued that one of the `works' - the Refugee project - exists outside of the art legitimating context altogether, and would thus have some difficulty assuming any conventional art label. The Rwandan Relief Project, is a computer design and international relief project rather than an artwork, even recognising the fact that two of its producers are designer/artists. To different degrees each of the examples described exist as cultural services. Within specialised art world discourse they could be framed within the so-called live art, performance art genres but perhaps they are better appreciated and understood as artist initiated examples of collaborative, operative, engaged or interventionist cultural practice, and, as I have attempted to suggest, examples of communicative action in action.
I would now like to shift register here somewhat to discuss further the theoretical and critical implications of giving in all of these projects. Giving is never a neutral or value free activity. There are always conditions, expectations, obligations attached, for both the giver and the recipient. To the most cynical, self-less giving, altruism - the regard for others as the ethical precondition for action - and philanthropy, do not exist. There are, it is presumed, always benefits which can be conferred upon the giver. To those cynics, the Christian axiom "it is better to give than receive," is often that - better! More benefits accrue to the giver than the recipient of the gift. Moreover, the gift implies that the giver has engaged in some virtuous activity which has some sort of redemptive value. In more secular terms, the gift promotes the elevation of self-esteem; sub-consciously, the giver thinks, "I want you to think better of me, to love and respect me for what I have given you."(17) The Christian gift - the offering - encourages members of a congregation to offer money as a propitiation of God, through the expiation of sin - the accumulation of wealth, usury. Like Max Weber's arguments concerning labour itself, this public act of atonement secures redemption for the faithful.
In Marxian terms altruism and philanthropy, within a capitalist economy, reproduces the moral superiority of those who have the power to give. Giving becomes a means toward assuming or reinforcing social power and existent hierarchies. However, there exists also within Marxism the contradictory nature of the gift that conflates needs and desires into a politically acceptable form. In Marx's writings the gift is subsumed materialistically under the acceptable socialist maxim "from each according to his/her ability...to each according to his/her need."
Conservatives are likely to argue that the various conventional types of giving, including welfare and foreign aid keeps the political order intact and the poor impoverished, that it reaffirms their poverty by sapping the recipients' initiative and will to develop. Giving, in these terms, promotes dependency and subordination. The whole business of giving in welfare and in forms of foreign aid have come under attack in recent years. Critics argue that welfare recipients should work for their money. Workfare programs now operate in many areas in the U.S. and are being contemplated in Alberta, Ontario and other Canadian provinces. Critics of international aid programmes argue that aid to third world countries reinforces under-development and responds merely to the symptoms of poverty and not the underlying cause. Aid to third world countries does not encourage the establishment of the necessary infra-structure to develop indigenous industries, neither does it promote community or national self-sufficiency. Development workers are cautioned with the examples of aid agency giving which has gone wrong - the water pump that was sent to irrigate the arid plain without the necessary back-ups for repair; the rubber thong factory which managed at full capacity to put cheap shoes on everyone's feet while it put the local shoemakers and repairers out of business.
Conservatives and even many leftists argue that without the altruistic concerns of liberal do-gooders, philanthropists, Christians, the Welfare State itself - members of the underclass, the lumpen proletariat - and whole populations of third world countries would be at the throats of their bourgeois and first world oppressors. In contrast to these somewhat jaundiced views however, there are many ways in which the art of giving can be said to represent politically efficacious practice, that is, socially responsive, ethically responsible activities, that achieve in small measure, their largely unstated claim to effect real change. This is especially the case, I believe, if each giving project is considered as part of a general process of education, or communicative action. I would argue that the `target' groups for each of the giving exhibits are different; that for the student Giving exhibit, giving was a service rendered implicitly for a service in kind; telephone someone and they may return your call, write someone a letter and they may reply, repair someone's bicycle and they may be able to give you a haircut in return. Ironically the student's giving and exchanging demonstrated the actual survival strategies that they may have to adopt upon graduation, particularly in this era of diminished expectations. The students giving strategies may have their corollary in the arenas of international aid. Despite many problems relating to the neo-colonial and imperialistic adventures of donor governments, the history of international aid projects demonstrates how the work of various agencies and institutions can provide the basic requirements for the building of international trust and co-operation, which are the cornerstones of development and self-sufficiency.
On a microcosmic scale, Ellwood's anarchic action argues for the redistribution of wealth in society, but warns also of the feeding frenzy when the containers of wealth are opened. His view of human nature is somewhat Hobbesian; that is, given the right opportunity greed will always assert itself. The money he threw disappeared in a matter of minutes, even when he pre-empted his own noon hour deadline by some thirty minutes. Some would say he had cold feet but the enraged members of the media who gathered at the appointed time to capitalise on the spectacle of people groveling for money, added another layer of meaning to his public intervention.
Some will argue that each example of the art of giving discussed above can be framed as either liberal altruism, or as leftist tendenzkunst, and perhaps both. The tendency argument would insist that while evidencing the `correct political tendency' the work remains at the level of representation, acting out the forms of cultural politics without providing the important political substance that would engender real change. Armed with the legacy of Marx, Engels, Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukacs, many on the left would argue that the artist /intellectual should align him/herself with the appropriate progressive or revolutionary forces within society and their representative social groups and political parties. Like Marx and Engel's critiques of Ferdinand Lasalle, each giving example could be criticised for evidencing the correct political tendency but lacking the correct engagement with its object of concern, which would necessitate an adoption of the approriate (time honoured) and normative political strategies for social change.
I believe however, that the most important strategic element of each project is the artists' insistence upon working with social reality itself rather than indirectly through various forms of representation, and this mitigates against a strong endorsement of the tendenzkunst conclusion. Lycan's exhibition is not simply another form of compassionate victim art masquerading empathetically with the disenfranchised proletariat. On the contrary, Lycan problematises the very conditions of giving as a reciprocal process within a structured economy that privileges taking, individual ownership, the profit motive and conspicuous consumption. She understands that the political economy of altruistic giving, like the corporate identity of some national and international aid organisations, churches and food banks, conforms to a "logic of practice" to use Pierre Bourdieu's description of the social habitus - "a system of structured (and) structuring dispositions, [the habitus] which is constituted in practice and is always oriented towards practical functions" (Bourdieu, 1990:53). Her Food Bank example insists that giving can be used `strategically' to further a number of identifiable life world and humanitarian goals, as well as provide some critical intervention into the ideological fabric of our culture.
Claude Levi Strauss has argued "The automatic laws of the cycle of reciprocity are the unconscious principle of the obligation to give, the obligation to return a gift and the obligation to receive" (1987:43). However, as Bourdieu argues in his critique of Levi-Strauss's structural logic of the (Maussian) law of reciprocity, in reality "the gift may remain unreciprocated." (98) For the Austrian artists, Lycan, Ellwood and to a certain extent the ceramists, the Refugee Project people and the student givers, this realisation would necessitate that the givers themselves become the first targets of conscientization. 11 Wochen Klausur, Lycan's Food Bank, The Giving Show, Ellwood's Free Money engage a logic of practice which permits an infinite variety of exchanges or gifts, challenges, ripostes and reciprocations to occur. These examples of the littoralist art are exemplary in the manner in which they creatively engage their public in conscientization and provide service of some social and cultural value. But in accordance with Bourdieu's wry observation on the politics of giving and receiving, these examples also acknowledge:
The simple possibility that things might proceed otherwise than as laid down by the `mechanical laws' of of the `cycle of reciprocity' (and that this) is sufficient to change the whole experience of practice and, by the same token its logic.(99)
In contrast to Mauss and Levi-Strauss' insistence on laws and structure in the cycle of reciprocity, of obligation and exchange, Bourdieu's logic of practice privileges individual agency, in all its unpredictability and contrariness, as the primary component of a generative model of giving (and understanding). Perhaps this logic of practice, like that promoted by Habermas himself "provides an alternative to money and power as a basis for societal integration." (Calhoun 1992:31) And without this acknowledgement of individual agency, of potential for contrariety, giving, the gift of labour, the gift of blood, and of life itself, would seem valueless.
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1. This essay is a longer version of The Art of Giving published in Fuse Magazine, volume 19, no. 2, Winter 1996.
2. There are many historical prototypes in evidence both within western modernism and cross culturally throughout various epochs.
3. Littoral describes the intermediate and shifting zone between the sea and the land (coastal) and refers metaphorically to projects which are undertaken predominantly outside of the conventional contexts of the institutionalised artworld -lifeworld affirming as opposed to system. The first Littoral: New Zones for Critical Art Practice symposium was organised by Ian Hunter and Celia Larner of Projects Environment in Manchester England in September of 1994 and attracted artists from over 20 countries. The second Littoral symposium Chimera was organised by Neil Berecry and Adrian Hall, members of the Australian group Synapse.
4. Within the international field of Littoral art practice there are many examples including artist groups that work with people with disabilities (Co-Operations in Luxembourg), children (Projects Environment, Manchester), the environment, Ala Plastica Foundation in Argentina, ArtLink in Ireland, and as a think tank Hirsch farm project in the U.S.
5. In their individual correspondence with Lasalle regarding his drama, Marx and Engles criticised him for schillern, a propensity in his text to "Avoid... the real material issues (content) of the Revolution, which was its subject" - in other words to focus on the aesthetic form of the work at the expense of its political potential. Schillern is both a pun on the German word for describing, and the name of the writer Friedrich von Schiller, who tended to proivilege aesthetic form and the plight of the tragic individual over the collective tragedy. Both Marx and Engels suggested that Lasalle's tragedy would have been more realistic and therefore more politically efficacious had he taken Shakespeare as his model and not Schiller.( Rose, M.,1984:94) Marx's critique of Eugene Sue was more pointed: comparing Sue to a bad painter who must label his painting to say what it represents, Marx accused him of producing the "most wretched offal of socialist literature." Baxandall and Morawksi: 1973:119)
6. (and also, implicitly, Adorno's)
7. The Benjamin quotations in Habermas' essay are from Reflections ed. Peter Demetz N.Y. (1978)
8. As Habermas argued in Legitimation Crisis (1975) the system has penetrated deeply into the lifeworld, progressively reorganising its practices in accord with its own rationalising, systematising and bureaucratic logic. The instrumentalising of human activity, he posited, destroys the possibilities of democratic participation in social interaction and political decision making.
9. Frederike Klotz, Martina Chmelarz, Anne Schneider, Gudrun Wagner, Marion Holy, Christoph Kaltenbrunner and Wolfgang Zinggl.
10. Presentation by Katherina Lenz, Littoral Conference,
Manchester Septemebre 1994
11. Pamphlet "Art and Social Intervention" September 1994
12. Katharina Lenz, Presentation, Manchester September 1994
13. Littoral Symposium booklet (1995)
14. 14.An earlier Lycan exhibit employed a similar participation process, this time used to gather house plant cuttings from London, Ontario residents for exhibition in a local gallery.
15. The Mail Star, Halifax, February 4 1995
16. Within the history of modernist art there are many works which employ money as a medium, enough in fact to construct a genre which would include its own canoninical examples such as Marcel Duchamp's Janzc Cheque ( ) a work in payment for some dental work, Robert Morris's U.S. Dollar Covered Brain ( )and Gerald Ferguson's One Million Pennies ( ).
17. A Booleian keyword search which I undertook at the Dalhousie University library while writing this paper, turned up 334 items with Giving in the title, with about a third of these texts related to the Christian ideals of self-less giving - focusing upon the Biblical maxim "give and ye shall receive."